Why are millions fleeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and other countries in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa? Because the population there is desperate to escape a permanent state of war, an infernal spiral of two, three, even five way conflicts between equally murderous antagonists, whether official government armies or terrorist gangs. Syria is the most ‘advanced’ expression of this descent into chaos. The Assad government, which has shown itself ready to bomb Syria to ruins rather than relinquish power, now only controls about 17% of the country. Whole areas of the north and east of the country are under the control of the fanatical jihadis of Islamic State. Other areas are in the hands of what the western media sometimes calls “moderate” oppositionists, but which are themselves increasingly dominated by jihadi forces like al-Nusra, which is an affiliate of al-Qaida: the “secular and democratic” rebels of the Free Syrian Army, which has been noisily supported by the US and Britain, seem to have become increasingly marginal. Between the anti-Assad forces themselves there is a never-ending game of alliances, betrayals and armed battles.
But Syria, like the other wars in the region, is also a confrontation between international powers, a fact brought home by the direct intervention of Russian war planes. From the start, Russia has backed the Assad regime with arms and “advisers”. Today its fighters are bombing “terrorist” targets because the Assad regime has its back to the wall and there is a threat that IS will overrun Russia’s base at Tartus, its only naval outlet to the Mediterranean. But for Russia, all the opposition forces, including those backed by the US, are terrorists, and its recent strikes have hit more of the non-IS rebels than IS itself. The US, which might have welcomed Russian aid in its bombing campaigns against IS in Syria and Iraq, can see very clearly that Russia’s number one aim is not to beat back IS but to prop up Assad. So the two powers are acting in the same country with opposing ends, even if they are not yet confronting each other head on.
Russia’s actions in Syria clearly mark an escalation, but they are an escalation in chaos. They go against any possibility of the big powers coming to some kind of settlement to the 4-year war in Syria, and thus any hope of stemming the tide of refugees fleeing the country. Like the US invasion of Iraq, the great powers are not bringing stability to the region, but a mounting instability, and their lack of options opens the door further to the ambitions of the regional powers. In Yemen, for example, where the Saudi- backed government has been fighting the rebels supported by Iran, which in turn has sent forces to Syria to support Assad. On the Turkish-Syrian-Iraqi frontier, where Turkey has used the pretext of opposing IS to step up its attacks on the Kurdish PKK; Turkey also supports the Ahar al-Sham group in Syria, while Qatar and Saudi have their own Islamist protégés, some of which have also received CIA support.
For decades after World War Two, the world lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation by the two imperialist blocs controlled by the US and the USSR. But this “Cold War” also brought with it a certain discipline, a certain order, as the majority of lesser countries or nationalist forces had to obey the diktats of one bloc or the other. The break-up of the Russian bloc at the beginning of the 90s led to the rapid unravelling of the US bloc, and subsequent attempts by the US to impose order on the resulting centrifugal tendencies only accelerated them further. Its failures in Afghanistan and Iraq are clear evidence of that, above all today as the Taliban, ousted from power by the 2001 US invasion, grow in strength in Afghanistan, and whole swathes of Iraq fall to IS or are under the influence of Iran, which is no friend to the US despite recent attempts to find a rapprochement. After these very negative experiences the US is reluctant to intervene with “troops on the ground” but the rise of IS has obliged it to resort to air power and to step up proxy support for forces like the PKK – previously considered a terrorist group - which has proved most effective in fighting IS. But this in turn has goaded Turkey to raise the stakes in its war on the Kurds. Attacking IS in Syria also runs the risk of indirectly boosting the Assad regime and thus Russian ambitions in the region. The contradictions mount up with no solution in sight.
In sum, there are no forces of order on the planet. The irrationality of capitalist war is becoming increasingly apparent: the wars ravaging the planet bring short term profits to a minority of capitalists and gangsters, but overall they are a total drain on capital, and carry with them no prospect of any post-war reorganisation and reconstruction, as was the case after World War Two. And yet, none of the capitalist powers, from the mighty US to the smallest local war-lord, can afford to stay out of this headlong plunge into militarism and war. The underlying drive of capitalist and imperialist competition is too strong. The financial cost of intervening militarily may be formidable, but the worst thing of all is to lose ground to your rivals. And there will always be rivals.
For the population of these regions, the cost is counted in flesh and blood – in the civilians bombed, raped, beheaded by government armies or opposition militias, in the ruin of their homes along with the historic and cultural products of centuries, in the choice between starvation in refugee camps on the edges of the war zones or the perilous journey to the “safety” of Europe. For humanity as a whole, the prospect is the spread of military chaos across the world, dragging us towards a fateful point of no return.
But that point has not yet been reached. If Europe still looks like a haven of prosperity to the refugees of the world, this is not because of the kindness of the European bourgeoisie. It’s because the working class in these countries is still a force to be reckoned with, and the ruling class is not able to grind it down to utter poverty or mobilise it for war as it was in the 1930s when it faced a defeated working class. Syria gives us a picture of the barbarity of the ruling class when the working class is weak and unable to resist the brutality of the state. The problem for the working class in the more central countries is that it doesn’t know its own strength, doesn’t understand its capacity to fight back, doesn’t have an independent perspective that can offer a future to all the world’s exploited and oppressed. But this perspective – of class struggle across all frontiers with the goal of creating a new society – remains the only real hope for humanity.